“Know Thyself”

Today’s blog post is dedicated to what I consider to be the hardest skill to achieve in your musical journey: Self-knowledge. Without it, you are completely lost.

Imagine you go to a concert, listen to Albéniz’s Asturias, and decide: “I´m going to become a guitarist! My first piece will be Tarrega’s transcription of Asturias!”

Yes! That will be your first guitar piece. (check link for Ana Vidovic’s version in tonebase)

Will you suffer? Yes! Will you be successful? Nope. Is it because you lack talent or skills? No! You just did not create a good path to achieve that goal. You need to know how to walk before you can run!

And with my students I see this mistake and this lack of knowledge all the time.

They want to play faster than what they can and harder pieces that are above their level. I try to give them modest goals, according to their skills and available study time, but they want more.

I feel conflicted.

Ambition is a great thing!

I also want to play complicated stuff, but I need to know when something is “out of my league” (for now, at least). If I don’t have self-knowledge, my musical journey will not be successful.

If you are focused on playing fast scales and complicated bar chords, the musical part will inevitably suffer. Your mind cannot focus on the vibrato, tone quality and expressivity if you are having technical problems.

Delete the technical problems by playing “easy stuff”!

Once in a while, I like to bring a piece from “Grade 1” to a student who is already in “Grade 5” for example. They laugh at me, they underestimate the piece, they don’t play it with heart and soul “because it’s too easy”.

My challenge for them (and for you) is to take great care of the vibrato and sound quality. Can it be better? I am sure it can. Use this opportunity and lack of technical difficulties to work on stuff that you don’t usually work on.

But never forget the most important thing: It must be enjoyable!

If you don’t enjoy this slow process then it’s not going to work.

We think that “becoming better at guitar” will be increasing the metronome markings or going to the next piece in your book or method of choice. I suggest the complete opposite: play the previous pieces. Revisit them. Improve them. Play them better, with care in your phrasing and with more ease now that the technical part is (supposed to be) solved.

If you do in fact have a technical problem (let’s say: a-m-i scales ), then play pieces that focus on that specific thing. A piece becomes therefore a way of achieving a specific goal (musical or technical). My experience tells me that you cannot focus on those two things at once. It’s hard to focus on the music if the technical problems constantly appear and notes are buzzing. It’s also hard to focus on fixing your right hand posture if you are focusing on vibrato and musical phrasing, for example. Pick your battles.

Final Note

Don’t rely so much on your teacher to tell you what you should or not play. Sometimes I suggest pieces to my students that they eventually end up hating (my bad!). Listen to their advice, but learn to know yourself. I know now what I like to play and if I like it and it is “inside my league” then it will bring great results. I cannot stress this point enough, liking the piece is not enough, it must be in your skill level or tackle a specific problem.

Have a good practicing time and don’t forget: take it slow and enjoy the ride

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Dave McLellan

Concert & Chamber Guitarist

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